Read Otherwise Online

Authors: John Crowley

Tags: #Fiction


BOOK: Otherwise
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An Imprint of

In memoriam

The Blacks:
King Little Black
The Queen, his wife
Black Harrah, the Queen’s lover
Young Harrah, his son
A bastard son of Farin the Black
Red Senlin
Red Senlin’s Son (later King)
Sennred, Red Senlin’s younger son
Old Redhand, his father
Younger Redhand, his brother
Caredd, his wife
Mother Caredd
The Just:
Nyamé, whose name is called Nod
The Neither-nor
The Grays:
Mariadn, the Arbiter
Learned Redhand, Redhand’s brother and later Arbiter
Ser and Norin
And a nameless one from Elsewhere
called variously
Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?
Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Will he make a covenant with thee?
And wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Lay thine hand upon him,
Remember the battle, do no more.




fter the skirmish, two Endwives found him lying in the darkness next to the great silver egg. It took them only a moment to discover that he was neither male nor female; somewhat longer to decide whether he was alive or dead. Alive, said one; the other wasn’t sure for how long; anyway, they took him up on their rude stretcher and walked with him nearly a mile to where a station of theirs had been set up a week before when the fighting had started; there they laid him out.

They had thought to patch him up however they could in the usual way, but when they began working they found that he was missing more than sex. Parts of him seemed made of something other than flesh, and from the wound at the back of his head the blood that flowed seemed viscous, like oil. When the older of the two caught a bit of it on a glass, and held it close to the lamplight, she gasped: it was alive—it flowed in tiny swirls ever, like oil in alcohol, but finer, blue within crimson. She showed her sister. They sat down then, unsure, looking at the figure on the pallet; ghastly pale he was in the lamplight and all hairless. They weren’t afraid; they had seen too much horror to fear anything. But they were unsure.

All night they watched him by lamplight. Toward dawn he began to move slightly, make sounds. Then spasms, violent, though he seemed in no pain—it was as though puppet strings pulled him. They cushioned his white damaged head; one held his thrashing arms while the other prepared a calming drug. When she had it ready, though, they paused, looking at each other, not knowing what effect this most trusted of all their secrets might have. Finally, one shrugging and the other with lips pursed, they forced some between his tightclosed teeth.

Well, he was a man to this extent; in minutes he lay quiet, breathing regularly. They inspected, gingerly and almost with repulsion, the wound in his head; it had already begun to pucker closed, and bled no more. They decided there was little they could do but wait. They stood over him a moment; then the older signaled, and they stepped out of the sod hut that was their station into the growing dawn.

The great gray heath they walked on was called the Drumskin. Their footsteps made no sound on it, but when the herds of horses pastured there rode hard, the air filled with a long hum like some distant thunder, a hum that could be heard Inward all the way to the gentle folded farmland called the Downs, all the way Outward to the bleak stone piles along the Drumsedge, outposts like Old Watcher that they could see when the road reached the top of a rise, a dim scar on the flat horizon far away.

They heard, dimly, that thunder as they stood at the top of the rise, their brown skirts plucked at by wind. They looked down into the gray grass bottom that last night’s struggle had covered, a wide depression in the Drumskin that everywhere was pocketed with such hiding-places. This pocket held now four dead men or women; the burying spades of the Endwives, left last night; and an egg made of some dull silver, as high as a man, seemingly solid.

“What,” said the younger then, “if no one knows of him but us?”

“We must tell his comrades, whichever they be, that we have him. It’s the Way. We must tell the comrades of any survivor that he lives. And only his comrades.”

“And how are we to know which—if either—were his comrades? I don’t think either were.”

The old one thought.

“Maybe,” said the younger, “we should tell both.”

“One side would probably gain an advantage, and the other probably not. The Protector Redhand might arrest him, and the Just be disadvantaged. The Just might kill him, and the Protector be disadvantaged. Worse: there might be a battle waged over him, that we would be the cause of.”


“It’s happened. That Endwives not taking care which side might be advantaged have caused death. It’s happened. To our shame.”

The other was silent. She looked up to where the Morning Star shone steadily. The home of the borning, as the Evening Star was of the dead.

“Perhaps he won’t last the day,” she said.

They called him Visitor. His strange wound healed quickly, but the two sisters decided that his brain must have been damaged. He spoke rarely, and when he did, in strange nonsense syllables. He listened carefully to everything said to him, but understood nothing. He seemed neither surprised nor impatient nor grateful about his circumstances; he ate when he was given food and slept when they slept.

The week had been quiet. After the battle into which the Visitor had intruded, the Just returned to the Nowhere they could disappear to, and the Protector’s men returned to the farms and the horsegatherings, to other battles in the Protector’s name. None had passed for several days except peatcutters from the Downs.

Toward the close of a clear, cold day, the elder Endwife, Ser, made her slow circular way home across the Drumskin. In her wide basket were ten or so boxes and jars, and ever she knelt where her roving eye saw in the tangle of gray grass an herb or sprout of something useful. She’d pluck it, crush and sniff it, choose with pursed lips a jar for it. When it had grown too dark to see them any more, she was near home; yellow lamplight poured from the open door. She straightened her stiff back and saw the stars and planets already ashine; whispered a prayer and covered her jars from the Evening Star, just in case.

When she stepped through the door, she stopped there in the midst of a “Well…” Fell silent, pulled the door shut and crept to a chair.

The Visitor was talking.

The younger Endwife, Norin, sat rapt before him, didn’t turn when her sister entered. The Visitor, motionless on the bed, drew out words with effort, as though he must choose each one. But he was talking.

“I remember,” he was saying, “the sky. That—egg, you call it. I was placed. In it. And. Separated. From my home. Then, descending. In the egg. To here.”

“Your home,” said Norin. “That star.”

“You say a star,” the Visitor said blankly. “I think, it can’t have been a star. I don’t know how, I know it, but, I do.”

“But it circled the world. In the evening it rose from the Deep. And went overhead. In the morning it passed again into the Deep.”


“For how long?”

“I don’t know. I was made there.”

“There were others there. Your parents.”

“No. Only me. It was a place not much larger than the egg.”

He sat expressionless on the edge of the bed, his long pale hands on his knees. He looked like a statue. Norin turned to her sister, her eyes shining.

“Is he mad now?” said Ser. Her sister’s face darkened.

“I… don’t know. Only, just today he learned to speak. This morning when you left he began. He learned ‘cup’ and ‘drink,’ like a baby, and now see! In one day, he’s speaking so! He learned so fast…”

“Or remembered,” Ser said, arising slowly with her eyes on the Visitor. She bent over him and looked at his white face; his eyes were black holes. She intended to be stern, to shock him; it sometimes worked. Her hand moved to the shade of the lamp, turned it so the lamplight fell full on him.

“You were born inside a star in the sky?” she asked sharply.

“I wasn’t born,” said the Visitor evenly. “I was made.”

Ser’s old hand shook on the lampshade, for the lamplight fell on eyes that had neither iris nor pupil, but were a soft, blank violet, infinitely deep and without reflection.

“How… Who are you?”

The Visitor opened his thin lips to speak, but was silent. Ser lowered the lampshade.

Then Ser sat down beside her sister, and they listened to the Visitor attempt to understand himself out loud to them, here and there helping with a guessed word or fact.

“When the egg opened,” said the and, “Visitor I came out into the darkness, I knew. I can remember knowing. Who I am, what had made me, for what purpose. I came out… bearing all this, like… like a…”—pointing to Ser’s basket.

“A gift,” said Norin.

“A bundle,” said Ser.

“But then, almost as soon as I arose, there were men, above me, dark, silent; I don’t think they saw me; something long and thin strapped to each back…”

“Yes,” said Norin. “The Just.”

“And before I could speak to them, others came, with, with…”

“Horses,” said Ser. “Yes. Protector Redhand’s men.”

“I ran up the—the bank, just as these two collided. There were cries, I cried out, to make them see me. There was a noise that filled up the air.”

“A Gun,” said Norin.

The Visitor fell silent men. The Endwives waited. The lamp buzzed quietly.

“The next thing I remember,” he said at last, “is that cup, and drinking from it today.”

Ser pondered, troubled. She would still prefer to think him mad; but the blank eyes, now velvet black, the viscous, living blood, the sexlessness… perhaps it was she who was mad. “How,” she began, “did you learn to speak so well, so fast?”

He shook his head slowly. “It seems… easy, I don’t know… It must be—part of what I was made to do. Yes. It is. I was made so, so that I could speak to you.”

“‘You,’” said Ser doubtfully. “And who is ‘you?’”

“You,” said the Visitor. “All of you.”

“There is no all of us,” Norin said. “There are the Folk, but they aren’t all of us. Because there are also the Just, with their Guns…”

“Warriors for the Folk,” said Ser. “So they claim. They make war on the Protectors, who own the land, to take it from them and return it to the Folk. Secret war, assassination. They are known only to each other. And yet most Folk stand aside from the Just; and in hundreds of years of this nothing has changed, not truly. But the war goes on. You tried to speak to both of them, Just and the Protector’s men, together; so you see.”

“Even the Protectors,” Norin said. “They own the land, they are the chief men…”

“They, then,” said the Visitor.

“But they are divided into factions, intrigues, alliances. As bitter toward each other as they are toward the Just.”

“The Reds and the Blacks,” said Norin.

“Old quarrels.” Ser sighed. “We Endwives come after battles, not before them. We help the hurt to live, and bury the dead.”

“More often bury than help,” said her sister.

“We are pledged neither to aid nor hurt in any quarrel. And… I suppose it can’t be explained to you, but… me world is so divided that if anyone knew of you but us, you would be used for a counter in their game. And the death that came in the next moves—if death came—would be on our hands.”

From his smooth face they couldn’t tell if he had grasped any of this. “The Folk,” he said at last.

Ser pursed her lips. He wouldn’t leave it. “They aren’t much used to being spoken to,” she said drily. “Except by the Grays.”


“A brotherhood; lawyers and scholars; arbiters, priests, keepers of wisdom…” He had turned to her. “And what,” she asked softly, “will you tell them then?”

She saw, not by any change in his face, but by the flexing of his long fingers, that he was in some torment of ignorance.

“I don’t remember,” he said at last.


His pale hands ceased working and lay quiet on his sharp knees. His face grew, if possible, still more remote; he looked ahead at nothing, as though waiting for some internal advice. Then he said, with neither patience nor hope: “Perhaps, if I wait, something will return to me. Some direction, some other part of the way I am made, that will let me know the next thing to do.”

Somewhere far off there grew a soft hum, indeterminate, coming from nowhere, growing louder that way, then louder this way. Riders on the Drumskin; the heath was speaking. Ser rose heavily, her eyes on the door, and moved to turn down the lamp.

“Perhaps it will,” she said. “Until it does, you will stay here. Inside. And be silent.”

The drumbeat grew steadily more distinct; the universal hum resolved itself into individual horses riding hard. Then cries, just outside. And Ser couldn’t bar the door, because an Endwife’s door is never barred.

Then there stood in the doorway a thick barrel of a man, bull-necked, shorn of all but a fuzz of steely hair. Dressed in leather, all colored red. Behind him two others in red carried between them a third, head bent back, open mouth moaning, red jacket brighter red with blood.

The barrel-man began to speak, but stopped when he saw someone sitting on the bed, pale and unmoving, regarding him with dark, calm eyes.

The Defender Fauconred disliked pens. He disliked paper and ink. On stormy days (which were growing more frequent as the year turned) or in the evenings after the horsegathering, he liked to stretch out on the pallet in his tent with a mug of blem-and-warm-water and stare at the pictures the living charcoal made in the brazier.

But once a week, every week, he must push his barrel shape into a camp chair and trim the lamp; sharpen two or three pens; lay out paper and mix ink; sit, sighing, humming, running thick fingers over his stubble of steel-gray hair; and finally begin.

“The Defender Fauconred to the Great Protector Redhand, greetings etc.” That part was easy.

“We are this day within sight of Old Watcher, on a line between it and the Little Lake, as far from the lake as you can see a white horse on a clear day.” He stopped, dipped his pen. “The herd numbers now one hundred five. Of these, forty-seven are stallions. Of the yearlings, the Protector will remember there were forty-nine in the spring. We have found thirty. Of all the horses, one is crippled, two have the bloat, and we have found three dead, one the old painted stallion the Protector mentioned.

BOOK: Otherwise
9.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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